Notwithstanding centuries-old cultural rifts, if somewhere between most and all of Belgium considers the Flemish classics the country's signature races, you can't blame them. Obviously the Ardennes races are (in two cases) officially Belgian, and definitely classics. But few one-day races are as international in character as La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Since 1980, "la Doyenne" (the eldest; LBL traces its roots to 1892) has been pretty hostile to its local racers, with only three Belgian winners in 26 years... placing them just behind Switzerland (4 wins) and several laps in arrears of Italy (11 wins). Worse, no Belgian team has tasted champagne here since Didi Thurau's 1979 victory. And the most recent success? Franck Vandenbroucke in 1999... not something historians will want to dwell on.
[La Fleche is only slightly more welcoming to the hosts: 5 wins in 26 years, compared to 12 Italians.]
Much has been made about the fact that, coincidentally or not, Liege is also home to a pretty significant Italian ex-pat community, with my people moving there in droves for the privilege of mining coal. But the lure of good pasta isn't what makes this race so inviting to the top riders of the entire Cycling universe, it's the course.
People who are new to the Classics might wonder why there's such an extreme separation between who participates in/wins the Flemish races and the Ardennes races. After all, la Doyenne officially lists only 12 climbs:
- 57 Côte de Ny' 1.8km 6%
- 82 Côte de la Roche-en-Ardenne 2.9km 5.9%
- 128 Côte de Saint-Roch 1km 11.2%
- 171 Côte de Wanne 2.2km 7.7%
- 177 Côte de Stockeu 1.1km 11.6%
- 183 Côte de la Haute-Levée 3.4km 6%
- 195 Côte du Rosier 3.9km 6.3%
- 208 Côte de la Vecquée 3.2km 6.2%
- 225 Côte de la Redoute 2.3km 7.4%
- 231 Côte de Sprimont 1.5km 5%
- 241, Côte de la Roche aux Faucons 1.5km 9.9%
246 Côte du Sart-Tilman-Tilff 3.7km 5.9%
- 254 Côte de Saint-Nicolas 0.9km 11%
That's five fewer than the Tour of Flanders, right? Not to mention the added degree of difficulty posed by the cobbles, and the occasionally ridiculous grades. But there are two lies inherent in the idea that Flanders and Liege are comparably climb-oriented. First, the lengths: in de Ronde, most climbs are measured in meters, not kilometers. The famous Muur is less than half a kilometer. The longest, the Oude Kwaremont, tops out at 2.2km. Here, just between km 183 and 225 there's no less than 12.8km of climbing. The other lie is the notion that the listed climbs are the only ones; in truth, it's hard to find many flats between Liège and Bastogne:
Here's an example of a climb that doesn't appear on the list... the ascent to the finish:
The "unofficial Côte" in Ans is usually where the race is decided. Tyler Hamilton's solo in 2003 is an exception, and certainly the attacks will be fast and furious from the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons all the way to the finish. But because the race draws out the world's great climbers -- champions of Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, and (for some reason) Luxembourg -- the endless undulations will fail to weed out a decent number of guys, including but not limited to the same people we've been talking about all week. In the end, Liège will be won by the guy who picks the right moment (of many) to attack or reply to an attack, and has the legs to finish it off. And unless Philippe Gilbert has somehow worked away all the soreness of an endless spring campaign, that winner yet again won't be a Belgian.